Wall Street Journal Reporter Hassled At LA Airport; Successfully Prevents DHS From Searching Her Phones
from the the-government-will-abuse-your-rights-as-far-as-you'll-let-it dept
Welcome to Bordertown, USA. Population: 200 million. Expect occasional temporary population increases from travelers arriving from other countries. Your rights as a US citizen are indeterminate within 100 miles of US borders. They may be respected. They may be ignored. But courts have decided that the "right" to do national security stuff -- as useless as most its efforts are -- trumps the rights of US citizens.
Wall Street Journal reporter Maria Abi-Habib - a US-born citizen traveling into the States with her valid passport -- discovered this at the Los Angeles International Airport. Her Facebook post describes her interaction with DHS agents who suddenly decided they needed to detain her and seize her electronics.
The DHS agent went on to say she was there to help me navigate immigration because I am a journalist with The Wall Street Journal and have traveled to many dangerous places that are on the US' radar for terrorism.
It's generally a good idea to be wary when government employees suddenly offers to "help."
But after pushing me to the front of a very long line at immigration, she then escorted me to the luggage belt, where I collected my suitcase, and then she took me to a special section of LAX airport. Another customs agent joined her at that point and they grilled me for an hour - asking me about the years I lived in the US, when I moved to Beirut and why, who lives at my in-laws' house in LA and numbers for the groom and bride whose wedding I was attending.
Abi-Habib was very cooperative. She answered all of the agent's questions and remained calm despite this interaction being far from ordinary. It didn't matter. The DHS decided to flex its "our border, our rules" muscle.
[T]hen she asked me for my two cellphones. I asked her what she wanted from them.
"We want to collect information" she said, refusing to specify what kind.
"Collect information." That's intrusion and surveillance that serves no discernible purpose. The DHS was obviously hoping Abi-Habib would remain as cooperative as she had during the previous questioning. But Abi-Habib disappointed the DHS agent by suggesting she should talk to the phones' owner about her search plans, rather than just hope a lengthy, suspicionless detention would prompt Abi-Habib to relinquish consent.
"You'll have to call The Wall Street Journal's lawyers, as those phones are the property of WSJ," I told her, calmly.
She accused me of hindering the investigation - a dangerous accusation as at that point, they can use force. I put my hands up and said I'd done nothing but be cooperative, but when it comes to my phones, she would have to call WSJ's lawyers.
She said she had to speak to her supervisor about my lack of cooperation and would return.
Obstruction is an actual crime. This wasn't an empty threat. I mean, it was an empty threat in the way that government officials hand out threats they have no intention of following through with as a means of coercion, but it was not empty as in "without enforceable consequences." It was meant to make Abi-Habib more receptive to granting the DHS permission to search the phones. But behind the threat is an actual criminal statute that could have turned this from a detention to an arrest. And all because the DHS didn't want to obtain consent for its search from the phones' actual owner.
Abi-Habib called the DHS agent's bluff. The DHS relented.
The female officer returned 30 minutes later and said I was free to go.
Abi-Habib's post closes by noting she doesn't fit any terrorism profile and offers security tips for those traveling in and out of the US -- like leaving everything behind that could be searched/seized, or travel with a recently-wiped phone.
The DHS's actions here are disturbing. It suggests agents dig through devices on a regular basis, even when there's a complete lack of suspicion. Laws and court rulings confirm there is a lowered expectation of privacy at US borders, but the agency's refusal to follow through with a search of the devices makes it clear agents are looking to hassle people they think won't fight back -- either during the detention, or after the fact with lawsuits and/or public discussions of their treatment. It's incidents like these that show many public security efforts by government agencies are almost entirely ornamental. It's the illusion of security, rather than an actual protective effort. Border agents dig around in people's stuff just because they can, not because they need to.